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Home » Archives » April 2005 » New York Times Article Draws Wrong Conclusions

New York Times Article Draws Wrong Conclusions

Thursday, April 28, 2005 Posted: 03:25 PM JST [SLIDE SHOW] [PHOTOS]

Norimitsu Onishi's article In Japan Crash, Time Obsession May Be Culprit in the New York Times yesterday seems to draw the wrong conclusions from the train crash in Amagasaki. I think it says more about how Japan is viewed abroad than that it correctly reflects the problems that lead to the accident.

"Across the country, the accident has already caused much soul-searching over Japan's attention - some would say obsession - with punctuality and efficiency. To many, the driver's single-minded focus on making up the 90 seconds seemed to reveal the weak points of a society where the trains really do run on time, but where people have lost sight of the bigger picture," Onishi writes.

He then continues to quote Shigeru Haga, a professor of transportation and industrial psychology at Rikkyo University in Tokyo: "I personally think Japanese should relax more and think that two- to three-minute delays are no trouble. But you see people rushing up and down the station stairs to catch a train even if there's another one coming in two minutes."

Possibly many of these people don't need to hurry. Then again if they wait for the next train they may miss a connection with another rail line or a bus. Few people can get where they need to get by just using a single trip, or single mode of transportation. Most trips in Japan involve transferring to another train, subway or bus, or a combination of these.

Additionally, train schedules are so tight that a delay of a few minutes may actually encroach on safety levels. Although it has not been reported in the media, just a few hundred meters behind the crashed train another train was parked shortly after the accident.

The crashed train was only minutes away from transferring onto the crowded Osaka-Kobe connection of JR West. During the busiest time in the morning JR West drives no less than 41 trains on a single direction on this line. Even 60 seconds of a delay can completely unhinge the time schedule of all trains connected to this line, lowering safety levels.

It can be argued that the obsession of Japanese railways with precision and punctuality may actually account for the low number of deadly accidents in Japan. Since 1963 only four major accidents have taken place on a railway system that transports more than 22 billion people per year, almost four times the total world population.

This is not to say there are no problems. The absense of an advanced ATS system, a system that can automatically slow down a train that is going too fast, on such a busy line as the one where the accident took place raises questions. Especially as the curve where the accident occurred is quite tight and followed by a level railway crossing.

And if the driver did indeed speed to make up for lost time, as it now seems, it must be asked why he thought that was more important than safety. Additionally, his inexperience must be taken into account. He only had eleven months of experience. Experts now believe that in addition to speeding, the driver suddenly hitting the brakes may have contributed to the derailment.

I also wonder if he assumed the ATS system would automatically slow him down to safe levels. Was he aware that the ATS system used on that particular stretch of track was of an old type and unable to slow him to a lower speed? Do young drivers automatically and blindly depend on the technology they have grown up with?

Then there is the problem of overloaded schedules. Some unions of train drivers complain that trains follow each other too closely. On many lines there is only a 150 second interval between trains during rush hour. "Train drivers," they say, "have to drive watching the tail lights of the train in front."

But tight schedules can not be easily fixed. Japanese cities have become too expensive to live, so most people live in suburbs. The railways have to ferry them in. Even with their present tight schedules trains are filled to the rim during rush hour. More distance between trains means fewer trains, therefore more overcrowding and as a result more people stepping into cars creating environmental and other problems.

One solution could be staggered starting times for companies and flexible working hours for employees. Now almost all companies in Japan start work at about the same time. Local governments could require that companies in certain areas have different starting times. A little bit like the staggered vacation schedules for schools and construction companies in many European countries.

It appears the problem is a lot more complex than a simple obsession with punctuality.

Keywords: opinion_item

Related Links:

  1. Photographs of the Japanese railway system
  2. Sites about the Japanese railway system
  3. Japan's Legendary Railway Safety
  4. Major Train Accidents in Japan
  5. Japanese Train Crash: "It Was so Terrible, I Had to Walk Away"
  6. List of major railroad accidents worldwide since 1831

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3 comments so far post your own

1 | At 06:12pm on Apr 28 2005, Jeremy wrote:
Just an attempt to link your thoughts back to punctuality.

Companies demand workers arrive on time.
Japanese People cram into their trains in an effort to get to work on time.
JR Cram trains into tight schedules to get those People to work on time.
JR Train drivers are pressured into disregarding safety in an effort to maintain punctuality.

(I use JR in a general sense not to specifically target any one JR Operator)

Your post almost follows through with this thinking when you observe that one delayed train can knock out the schedule for innumerable following trains and their passengers.

The driver of this train had been punished previously for causing a service delay and it doesn't take too much of a leap to opine that the driver considered it worse to be punished for punctuality than speeding.

I do agree though that the reasons why a train driver could make such a reckless conclusion must be much more complex than a cultural fixation on punctuality.

Personally I feel that culturally Japan has a lack of, for want of a better word, respect for danger. Living in such a safe and secure environment, with constant hand holding by way of signs, lines, lights and announcements, appears to leave people unable to properly assess situations in their absence, and sometimes as is the case with crossings, their presence.

By way of footnote Joi Ito Has a good post on why a punctuality fixation is good for many situations (avoiding the safety issue completely).
2 | At 08:05pm on Apr 28 2005, Kjeld Duits wrote:
Hi Jeremy, thanks for the link. I enjoy Japan's punctuality as much as Joi does.

The inference of the NYT article is that without Japan's obsession with punctuality there would be a smaller chance for accidents like the one in Amagasaki to happen.

I am not arguing that there is no strong focus (I prefer that over the loaded word 'obsession') on punctuality in Japan. There clearly is, as I also admit with the anecdotes and examples I use in my article.

I disagree however with the inference that an accident like this one would not have happened without the "obsession on punctuality". I strongly believe that there would be more accidents.

In the past 40 years there have been only 4 major deadly train accidents in Japan. Even though railway companies transport 22 billion people annually. I see this high safety record as a result of punctuality and precision.

You write "JR Train drivers are pressured into disregarding safety in an effort to maintain punctuality."

Can you please give several actual examples of JR Train drivers being pressured into disregarding safety? Just like you, I think it deserves more attention and a careful discussion. I'll see what I can get from primary sources.
3 | At 08:30pm on Apr 28 2005, Kjeld Duits wrote:
I have just finished reading the comments below Joi Ito's article and see that Antoin O Lachtnain pretty much says the same thing as I do, although with different examples and a stronger and clearer focus on capacity.
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